Book Review: Becoming Justice Blackmun


**Reposted from February 21, 2006 on my previous blog.

Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun’s Supreme Court Journey by Linda Greenhouse

In her book, Linda Greenhouse combines the expertise she has gained from her years covering the Supreme Court for the New York Times with her careful research of Justice Blackmun’s papers to tell the story of Harry Blackmun’s evolution as a justice and a person, and the story of how this evolution affected his relationships on the Court, including the decline of his lifelong friendship with Chief Justice Warren Burger.

This book is a must-read for lawyers and non-lawyers alike. Along with unique insights about the decision-making processes of the Supreme Court in particular cases, such as Roe v. Wade, Greenhouse provides intriguing details about the relationships among the various justices. These details are reflected in the many notes Justice Blackmun received from or sent to the other justices. Some of the notes reveal the justices’ reactions to significant historical events, such as Nixon’s resignation. Others are just plain funny. My favorite is Justice Scalia’s note to Justice Blackmun–ideological opposites who were both sticklers for proper grammar. Justice Scalia wrote to Justice Blackmun: “I would sooner watch a rock video than use the word ‘viable’ in other than its proper medical sense.” (This is second only to “quack, quack” as my favorite Justice Scalia quote.)

In addition, and my favorite theme of the book, Greenhouse provides a detailed chronicle of Justice Blackmun’s judicial contribution to our understanding of the power of law to address (or fail to address) the social inequity pervasive in modern American society. From his authorship of Roe, to his defense of the rights recognized therein, to his moving dissents in DeShaney v. Winnebago County (“Poor Joshua!”), Callins v. Collins (“From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.”), and Beal v. Doe (“There is another world ‘out there,’ the existence of which the Court . . . either chooses to ignore or fears to recognize.”), Justice Blackmun provided a unique voice of reasoned compassion that was missing on the Supreme Court before he joined it and has been missing since he left the Court.

Without disparaging Linda Greenhouse, whose excellent and accurate work I respect and admire, the brilliance of this book is in the heroic figure that it chronicles. Justice Blackmun clearly had a profound impact on American law, not only in the cases in which he sat with the majority, but also in cases in which he filed moving dissents.

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